Northern Ireland

Antoin Rodgers: Lurgan dentist with a passion for social justice and Gaelic football

ANTOIN Rodgers had a passion for social justice and for Gaelic football.

As a young man he was a talented footballer who proudly wore the green of Donegal and won eight county championship medals with the great Gaoth Dobhair team of the 1940s and '50s.

Later, after taking over a dental practice in Lurgan, Co Armagh, his keen social conscience saw him join the civil rights movement and its non-violent campaign for equality for all.

His unwavering support for his wife Bríd, often balancing work and family care in her absence, also allowed her to make a huge contribution to changing the harsh face of the Northern Ireland he had experienced in the early sixties.

Antoin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926, the eldest of three children of Gaoth Dobhair emigrants Jamesie Rodgers and Mary Gallagher.

After the family returned to Co Donegal in 1933, he was educated in Derrybeg National School, St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny and University College Dublin, graduating in dentistry in 1951.

He worked in the south of England for a year before setting up a dental practice in Buncrana, Co Donegal.

Then, in 1956, on learning that the Medical Missionaries of Mary had no dentist in their area of Eastern Nigeria, he contacted Mother Mary Martin offering his services for two years on a voluntary basis.

Antoin volunteered for two years with the Medical Missionaries of Mary as a dentist in Eastern Nigeria
Antoin volunteered for two years with the Medical Missionaries of Mary as a dentist in Eastern Nigeria

Many of the missionaries he worked with remained close friends for the rest of his life.

On his return to Ireland Antoin bought a small practice in Lurgan, which quickly grew to include two associates.

He married Bríd Stratford, a young teacher from Gaoth Dobhair, in 1960.

A man of compassion, he was instrumental in establishing a committee in Lurgan in 1962 with the aim of freeing republican prisoners still in jail following the 1950s campaign.

The campaign was well over but families were suffering.

Professional people in Lurgan and Church leaders from both sides of the community were approached and, to their credit, many gave their support.

Along with Bríd, a future SDLP deputy leader and Stormont minister, Antoin became involved in the early civil rights movement, initially helping her to collate statistics on discrimination in the Lurgan area for the Campaign for Social Justice.

Antoin Rodgers with his wife Bríd
Antoin Rodgers with his wife Bríd

All of this while running a busy dental practice.

In 1969, an article in the local Paisleyite Protestant Telegraph stated that a civil rights march in Lurgan was led by “the wife of local dentist AJ Rodgers in Church Place”.

In the highly-charged atmosphere of the time in a very divided community, his practice suffered and he had to let one of his associates go.

Nevertheless he always appreciated the very many patients from the unionist community who stayed with him to the end, some becoming close friends.

People who came to know Antoin - or Tony as he was known by many in Lurgan - realized he hadn’t a sectarian bone in his body. He was implacably opposed to violence from all quarters.

On his death hundreds of messages of condolence and appreciation came from his many friends and former patients from all sections of the community.

A keen golfer and member of Lurgan Golf Club, Antoin won the open competition for the Malcolm Trophy in 1961.

He had his name inscribed in Irish on the medallion attached to the base. Not for any other reason but that he was a native speaker, proud of his heritage and simply that was who he was.

When he was approached and asked for agreement to have it replaced with English, he refused.

His name in Irish was nevertheless removed. To this day the name of the 1961 winner is unrecorded.

Three decades later, as the club became a neutral space with cross-community mutual respect, he was honoured to be nominated club captain.

Antoin was interested in all sports but his abiding passion was for Gaelic football.

On moving to Lurgan in 1958, he played for the St Peter’s team for two years.

As well as his prized medals with Gaoth Dobhair, his collection includes a Sigerson won in 1950 with UCD and a Lagan Cup medal from the Donegal team of the 1950s.

His joy at seeing his native county lift the Sam Maguire in 1992 was surpassed only when the 2012 All-Ireland team included the McGee brothers from his beloved Gaoth Dobhair.

It is fitting that his resting place in Magheragallon graveyard overlooks the Gaoth Dobhair Gaelic football pitch where today’s team provided a guard of honour as his funeral cortege passed.

Antoin Rodgers died aged 94 on January 13.

He is survived by his brother John, 16 grandchildren, and his wife Bríd and children Mary, Anne, Séamus, Bríd, Tom and Antoin, whose love and support enabled him to spend the last years of declining health in the place he loved best, his home.

Go ndeanaidh a mhaith ar a anam dílis.